Lacking any real narrative thrust, “When the Game Stands Tall” seems aimed only at die-hard prep football followers interested in the ins and outs of Concord’s powerhouse De La Salle High School program.
Yet those same die-hard football fans likely will be the first to notice how bogus it is for the film to try to present this team as underdogs.
Under head coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), the De La Salle Spartans built a record-shattering, almost otherworldly 151-game win streak. That streak ended in 2004, when the team struggled for a bit on the field.
But only a bit. Certainly not long enough to warrant a movie about it. Yet here one is.
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Without giving away details about what has happened since the streak ended, let’s just say the Spartans remain top dogs. Therefore, it is misleading to spend as much time as this movie does on the team’s brief post-streak troubles and on a single game against fellow behemoth Long Beach Poly. The long stretch of the film devoted to that game gives the false impression the Spartans are overmatched scrappers.
Director Thomas Carter brings experience with on-screen sports stories, having directed Samuel L. Jackson as a Richmond high school basketball coach in “Coach Carter” and co-starred on “The White Shadow.” Though this film’s off-the-field locations look generic (New Orleans subbed for the East Bay), Carter lends game scenes appropriate crunch and vibrancy.
But the stakes never are high enough, and the dialogue so sports-clichéd it numbs. The film contains touching moments and a few compelling performances, but otherwise – to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – there isn’t enough there there. (She was talking about visiting Oakland. Her thoughts on Concord and greater Contra Costa County remain unknown.)
From this film, adapted by Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon from a book by Neil Hayes, we learn there is no “I” in team, that young men in a football program are like brothers, and that one Spartan is so gritty he vows he will come off the field only “on a stretcher.”
Given such lines, it is no wonder the young cast is so uneven. Michael Daddario probably has it worst. He plays Danny Ladouceur, the coach’s son and a De La Salle player.
In the film, Danny lashes out after his father has a heart attack and (temporarily) cannot make practice. He makes the father’s inability to coach all about him, because he wants his dad there to guide him on the field. It’s hard to believe the real son ever was as bratty as he comes off here.
Some of the young actors play fictional characters, and boy does it show, because the fictional characters also are stock characters. Like the me-first hotshot (Jessie T. Usher) and the star player (Alexander Ludwig) burdened by a demanding, menacing Bad Sports Dad (a stratospherically over-the-top Clancy Brown).
Stephan James and Ser’Darius Blain even things out a bit in their roles as real-life Spartan standouts. Each lends nuance to a highly emotional scene in which their characters, longtime teammates and friends, discuss their futures.
Laura Dern could appear in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 5” and seem earthy and real. She is both things here, as Mrs. Coach. Dern does a lot of the heavy lifting, at film’s start, in giving scenes with Caviezel a sense of history between two people.
That’s because Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”) mostly looks grim. But his performance is sneaky. He is so stony that any small show of emotion registers strongly. He slowly draws the audience to him, instead of reaching out. By the film’s third act, you are hanging on his every small show of dismay or pleasure.
It helps that the guy who played Jesus is playing a guy who teaches religious studies at De La Salle, a Catholic school. In “Game Stands Tall,” the coach cites the Bible in offering life lessons. But he’s never pushy about it.
Caviezel plays Ladouceur – in real life no longer head coach but still involved with the team – as a man of genuine, deep faith. His performance anchors a scene, rooted in tragedy, that director Carter also handles with grace.
When he addresses players, the coach espouses “love” as a team principle. His players hold hands as they step on the field for a game. He encourages player goal-making tied to what is possible if a player gives a “perfect effort.” Perfection is unattainable, but perfect effort is not.
Every moment devoted to his coaching philosophy fascinates. They are too few. A film showing how Ladouceur built a team that won 151 games straight would have been interesting. The filmmakers squandered an opportunity by instead focusing on its brief comedown and “comeback.”